Back in 2015, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported that a proposed Community Improvement District (CID) in Columbia was drawn to include a single registered voter. The controversy over this CID led to a court case. And just this week, an appeal was heard by the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District. Each step of the story demonstrates why Missouri’s special taxing district statutes are in dire need of reform.
As Graham Renz and I discussed in our paper, “Overgrown and Noxious: The Abuse of Special Taxing Districts in Missouri,” CIDs allow business owners the ability to levy a sales tax on their customers—and sometimes spend the revenue generated on explicitly private purposes. CIDs are often unknown to shoppers and are notoriously easy to set up. What’s more, if business owners are clever, they can construct a district in a way that evades the need for any public vote.
This brings us back to the Columbia Business Loop CID. The businesses likely meant to draw a district without any residents, allowing only business owners to vote to approve. The Tribune reported on August 25, 2015 that a single resident, 23-year-old Jen Henderson, was living within the proposed district and would be the sole voter. Eventually 14 more voters living within the district were identified. The vote on the CID was 4 to 3 in favor, but Henderson filed a lawsuit claiming that Missouri election law was not followed.
The details of the case are themselves mystifying. The presiding judge decided to dismiss the case in March 2016, but refused to issue and sign an actual ruling—and in doing so denied Henderson the ability to appeal—until ordered by the Missouri Supreme Court in February 2019, over 1,000 days later. The CID has been collecting the sales tax all the while.
Henderson did appeal once the ruling was issued, and that was the case heard by the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District on Wednesday. In short, Henderson alleges that the CID did not follow Missouri voting procedure requiring a secret ballot. The defendants argue that the statute setting up CIDs does not specify any election guidelines, so they can do as they please.
Whatever the outcome of the case, any attention brought to Missouri’s permissive special taxing district laws is welcome. Voters and taxpayers ought to be better respected and those granted the power to tax should be held accountable.